People Turning in Gears - SynergyEurope is trying to build a single digital market, especially with respect to educational materials. Publishing Perspectives has a look at the progress of this initiative, particularly concerning the necessity of requiring interoperability between e-book devices and formats, and the availability of open content which can be remixed and reshared.

Germany is one of the first countries to put the new open access requirements of the European Union’s Digital Agenda into practice, passing laws to require free access to educational content. The requirement seems most likely to affect publishers, given how reliant publishers have been on locking down their content with DRM.

Publishers are undoubtedly facing an interesting challenge. Nevertheless, they should have been on the alert since the 2007 publication of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) document Giving Knowledge for Free. The Emergence of Open Educational Resources. This document clearly signaled upcoming changes: “In a digital world where educational users increasingly engage with a culture of cut and paste, remix, collaboration and instant Internet access, open content licensing will provide a vitally important facility for sharing and reshaping knowledge in the name of culture, education and innovation. While respecting the basic principle of copyright, open content licensing allows a broader understanding of information management in a way that builds on the existing system. There can be little doubt that open content licensing will become an important option in the copyright management, distribution and utilization of educational resources.”

Some publishers, such as Flat World Knowledge and, are already acting on these principles using Creative Commons licenses. Other publishers are going to need to work out how best to follow suit.

It’s encouraging to see Europe taking the lead in requiring publishers to open access to information for the sake of education. I can’t imagine the publishers will take the matter lying down, however. And I can’t imagine such an initiative going quite as well in the USA.

The strange thing about the article is that it starts out talking about e-book interoperability in general terms, touching on the importance of being able to buy an e-book and then read it on different platforms and in different apps—but then it veers off into discussing educational markets and doesn’t really come back to general e-book-related matters.

Pillar II of the European Digital Agenda sets goals for interoperability—but the article doesn’t say much about how such goals could be enforced. Are they going to require Amazon to make its e-books open in different apps? If so, how could such a thing even be done?

That said, Barnes & Noble’s recent decision to close its UK Nook store and transfer (most of) its customers’ e-books over to Sainsbury emphasizes the need for greater interoperability of devices, formats, and apps. Hopefully those working for that greater interoperability over there can take its lesson to heart.


  1. The article certainly gets off to to a bad start by placing the blame on European publishers for interoperability issues. That implies that publishers want to muck with multiple, incompatible formats, with all the accompanying costs and other issues. That is nonsense.

    By her silence, she lets retailers, such as Amazon with its proprietary formats, off too lightly. And to give Amazon its due, I doubt the company would subsidize its Kindle devices so heavily if people could easily use them to read ebooks from other sources. That illustrates how these European policies could have unintended consequences. Demand too much and you may get less.

    She also seems more than a little afflicted with the “knowledge wants to be free” madness, which assumes that writers, editors and publishers, alone in all the world, should be forced to forgo the already limited return on their labors. You might call that the New Marxism. The Old Marxism appealed to the lazy who wanted to mooch off the labor of hardworking factory and farm workers. The New Marxism wants to do the same with knowledge workers, including fiction writers and pander to the lazy consumers of their products.


    I regard this comment as particularly insane: “In a digital world where educational users increasingly engage with a culture of cut and paste, remix, collaboration and instant Internet access, open content licensing will provide a vitally important facility for sharing and reshaping knowledge in the name of culture, education and innovation.”

    She’s confusing what students do, sloppily cut and paste material from a patchwork of online sources, with what they ought to be doing, which is read widely, acquire a genuine understanding of the material and then express that well themselves. The former often means copyright violations and getting sloppy about fair use by lazy teachers and students. It gives students lots of time to text and browse celebrity websites while learning nothing. Encouraging more of that isn’t a good idea.

    I’ve got a different spin on education. For many subjects, we should discard textbooks altogether. For instance, why have students wade through a history textbook covering World War I written by a drudge who is ill-paid because the textbook company doesn’t care about the quality of its books, merely following the currently fashionable gimmicks that textbook committees are currently obsessed with.

    Were I to set up a program to teach high school students about WWI, for instance, there’d be no textbook or silly cut-and-paste nonsense, but there’d be a heck of a lot of reading. For the start of the war, they’d read Barbara Tuchman’s marvelous The Guns of August. For the view of troops in the trenches, there’d be All Is Quiet on the Western Front.

    Along with other excellent books. They wouldn’t have a textbook, but they’d read a lot of interesting (and inexpensive) books. Used, the two books I mention above sell for a penny with $3.99 shipping or $4. Contrast that to high school history textbooks than on Amazon are run $30 and more and are deliberately made out of date every few years.

    Both books are infinitely better reading that the typical textbook much less some cut-and-paste miss mash. And teaching that way wouldn’t just teach one subject. It’d teach students how to learn about any area of history. Understand WWI by reading some of the best books about it, and you can understand any period in history by doing the same.

    In short, I’d teach history using world-class books that not only teach it well, but that people love to read voluntarily. Who voluntarily reads either textbooks or some hastily thrown together mess from a confused set of often third-rate sources? No one. So why inflict them on school kids?

    Probably because school teachers, when they’re in school, had a similar set of dreadful books forced on them by their ed school profs. Misery creates misery.


  2. As usual, I disagree with Mr. Perry. For all of the whining that the publishers have done about Amazon and the monopoly they built with their superior purchasing and ebook reading experience, the publishers’ insistence on DRM and their acceptance of multiple incompatible ebook formats is a strong component of Amazon’s dominance. Once you’ve started down the path of accumulating ebooks of a particular format, you’re just not going to switch to a different device/retailer if you can’t migrate your existing books to the new device. The publishers are to blame for not insisting on device independence. They should have learned from the experiences of the video and music industries. The music industry had a single format for each media type and every device for that media type supported it. The video industry had the VHS/Beta war, which was a mess, the DVD, which was universal, and then HD-DVD/Blu Ray, which was another mess. The loser in these format wars is ultimately the consumers, not the publishers, and it’s something the publishers could have stopped in the early days of dedicated ebook readers.

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